“Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:20-24)
Why is Jesus criticizing these two towns?Jesus' statement in this regard is also recorded in Luke, where it says:
"I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades." (Luke 10:12-15)Before this statement in Matthew, it says:
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. (Matthew 11:20)While he appears to be condemning these towns, Jesus reveals the purpose for his many miracles, performed in different places throughout the region: To encourage people to change - to repent.
Jesus also compares the responses of those people in those places with the kind of responses that would have been accomplished had the miracles been performed in Tyre and Sidon - where Solomon and David ruled many generations earlier.
He compares their repentance with those in Tyre, Sidon, and also Sodom - cultures that were condemned for their stubbornness regarding accepting the Supreme Being's message.
In other words, Jesus was very disappointed in the responses from many of the people he came to teach.
What was the purpose of Jesus' miracles?Did Jesus perform miracles to show off? Did he perform miracles to bring attention to himself? Or was he healing people like a doctor would in a hospital?
If Jesus' interest were in healing people's bodies, he would have set up hospitals.
And if his intent was to bring attention to himself he would have taken advantage of that, rather than allow himself to be arrested and persecuted.
It is clear that the purpose of his miracles was to evoke a response of repentance, rather than simply to heal people’s bodies - as many have proposed. Jesus’ interest was in saving people spiritually, not simply in healing a few people’s physical bodies.
The element of repentance is critical to this discussion. While the concept of repentance is tossed around by various preachers to indicate a person’s proclamation to Jesus, this is a hollow view of the actual intent and meaning behind Jesus’ desires and motives with regard to the use of this word.
The words "repented" and "repent" in these verses are translated from the Greek word μετανοέω (metanoeō) which means, "to change one's mind for better" according to Strong's lexicon. When exercised practically, it means to alter our current activity and take up a completely different activity.
In the context of Jesus’ teachings, we are talking about a person making changes with respect to their goals, directions and aspirations, followed by changes to activities. The people Jesus spoke about were focused upon the benefits of the physical world. They were focused on becoming wealthy, influential and popular. They were focused upon physical comfort and enjoyment of the senses. In other words, their intentions related to self-centeredness, reflected by an attempt to make the physical body happy.
Jesus, on the other hand, taught that real happiness lies in doing the will of God - by loving and serving God. This is a completely different goal and direction in life from a self-centered purpose.
Is Jesus encouraging a change of heart?Jesus aspired to effect a change of heart within each person he spoke to. Whether it be an entire village of individuals or a small group of his own students, his purpose was the same: To change the direction and aspiration of the individual from a self-centered, materialistic one to one where the Supreme Being is the center of our lives, and we are focused upon His pleasure.
This is the ‘repentance’ Jesus was referring to, not some ecclesiastical proclamation of Jesus, or the joining of a sectarian institution.
It must be stressed that this change of heart is not a mechanical change, and it is not one that a person can effect alone. The Supreme Being must be involved in the change for that change to become complete. For it is the Supreme Being whom we must connect with for the strength and the vision to make any real change. This means that we must redevelop our loving relationship with the Supreme Being in order to have a complete change of heart.
Consider for a moment, redeveloping a relationship with someone we used to know and care about years ago. Let’s say we were close childhood friends with someone, and over the years we fell out of contact, and even though we knew how to reach them, we did not. Then one day we decide to contact them out of the blue.
What is one of the first things we will naturally do? We will certainly apologize that we had not been in better contact over the years. A sincere apology will almost be immediately accepted by our childhood friend. From that point forward the discomfort provided by the fact that we lost touch with them goes away, and we can continue our relationship with them.
This is also the essence of the process of repentance as Jesus is discussing. Note that when referring to “Tyre and Sidon,” Jesus states that “they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Why the sackcloth and ashes?
These relate to a feeling of being sorry and a request for forgiveness. Why? While most consider this related to being sorry for ‘living in sin,’ (i.e., guilt) we once again point out that we are talking about a Person (God) here. We are not talking about a building or a religious organization.
To honestly repent and feel bad for our behavior, we must be pointing that apology to someone. Why? Because this someone happens to be our Best Friend and Creator. This Someone happens to be the Supreme Being and we have been offending Him by ignoring Him. We have been living our life centered around our physical pleasure for a very long time.
Once we realize that He is our true Master and loving Friend, we can begin the process of re-establishing our lost relationship with the Supreme Being.
What is repentance?The essential element to repentance lies beyond simply saying sorry. It also includes striving to make changes. This means changes that make our actions more pleasing to the Supreme Being. And because the Supreme Being wants us to love Him and love others, this means caring for Him and caring for others.
Isn't this what anyone does when they enter a relationship? Consider what two people do when they become intimate with each other. Each begins doing things that please the other person.
It might be difficult for us to immediately go from living for ourselves to living for the Supreme Being. Besides, as in any relationship, we have to get to know Him. And from there, a complete change of consciousness typically comes gradually, even if we decide immediately to make changes.
So what can we do immediately? We can praise God in song, with our prayers, with our thoughts, and with our conversations.
We can offer our food to Him before we eat it - an ancient and traditional act of devotion lost among modern religious rituals. The Supreme Being will also accept even a flower or a cup of water, assuming we offer these to Him with love and devotion.
We can re-arrange our lifestyle to do things we know are pleasing to the Supreme Being. The Scriptures clarify these.
As we do these activities, gradually He will reveal Himself to us more and more, and our relationship with Him will redevelop - assuming we keep a humble attitude and do not become proud of our supposed progress.
As we do this, we will slowly develop a higher taste and a higher realm of satisfaction. What is that? It is love. It is becoming happy when the Supreme Being is pleased:
" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)